Aeterna Noctis is an absolutely gorgeous Metroidvania with some of the most unique areas I’ve ever explored in a game of its type. In addition to that, it has a gripping story with some fun ideas and twists built into it.
It’s also a relentlessly difficult game with stiff controls that don’t quite work as well as they should, amplifying its merciless, anti-player platforming and setup. It is, in fact, so difficult that I rage quit the game and am not sure if I want to go back and finish it, despite having dumped a couple dozen hours into it, and having a vested interest in seeing the story play out.
I appreciate a good story in games, particularly when the game does a pretty good job integrating its environment and mechanics into that story. Aeterna Noctics does an amazing job of this. The base story involves a neverending fight between the forces of light and darkness, as embodied in the woman and man seen in the stained glass above. Each is supposed to defeat the other in turn, seizing power and ruling over the world(s) until their opposite can gather enough power to dethrone them and repeat the cycle.
The player controls the King of Darkness, who is, to my knowledge, given no other name. He falls, and as a result, his powers are sealed. In order to be able to challenge the Queen of Light, he must go through various trials and regain his powers. This is actually a brilliant move on the developers part. In a metroidvania, the player wants to grow stronger and gain new abilities to explore. In the story of this game, the King of Darkness wants to grow stronger and be able to challenge his opposite.
Various twists and turns accompany the story, including some that seem a bit less obvious than others. Given that there’s a male and a female here, it’s not all that surprising that (spoilers, obviously) the two of them fall in love. What’s a bit more surprising is that a child is born of that love. We learn that the King of Darkness is following instructions he’s read in a chronicle that details the world, which pointed him toward getting help from an oracle. So the plot gets a bit deeper, discussing what’s necessary in life and the balance of the world, making the argument that we need both light and darkness to balance one another out.
The game is also gorgeous. The king is rendered in animation, and while it doesn’t hold up quite as well when it zooms in, it still has a unique appearance. There are often moments where I stopped and marveled at the world around me, and they happened as early as the very first area I landed in! That was just the wasteland, but they went out of their way to make it an intriguing place that felt populated, if not strictly alive.
And the locations are absolutely brilliant. Yes, there’s some cliche spots, like a forge or the wasteland. But you also go to a rendition of the Abyss that’s just filled with great images and moments. At the point near my rage quit, the King of Darkness is launched into space. They really went all out when it came to setting up this game and tying its narrative into its gameplay, making it clear that the King of Darkness is willing to go to extreme depths: to the abyss, to the dreaming world, to space, to the depths of the world, to advanced civilizations, in order to achieve his goal.
Shame the gameplay sucks.
It’s hard to explain what’s up with the King of Darkness. He doesn’t quite seem to move like he should. I wonder if it’s not all the animation and details they’ve put into him, from his armor to his cape. Regardless, he just doesn’t quite feel right as he jumps. Everything feels slightly off, a bit too stiff and awkward. That would be an issue in a normal metroidvania: jumping is very important (as I can tell you, my jump button went out on a boss in Iconoclasts once).
But here, they have painful platforming sections. It seems like the developers were quite fond of Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight, as they should be. It’s often held up as the best metroidvania for combining simple but sharp graphics, tight controls, excellent bosses, rewarding exploration that ties into its mysterious story, and, yes, some difficult platforming sections. There are at least two areas in Hollow Knight I can name off the top of my head that had tricky platforming sections. The most notorious is the White Palace, an optional section that you have to beat if you want to get the True Ending of the game (there’s also a super duper ending that I don’t think is quite canonical but is supposed to be amazing? I’m never going to do it, because it requires beating an exhaustive gauntlet of boss battles).
To borrow some words from other gamers, Aeterna Noctics looked at the White Palace section and decided their entire game should be like that. It never lets up with the platforming difficulties. Ever.
See the picture? Those are taken from the dream ascent that you have to make in the latter part of the game. You have to jump from those thin lines in the air to another thin line, or sometimes use the floating symbol. If you hit the symbol, your double-jump and air dash are restored. There’s also these oh so fun light arrows that you can shoot and then teleport to, if you’re super quick. To complete this sequence and reach the uppermost area takes 21+ consecutive inputs from a player. Mess up on any one of those, overreach a jump, miss a platform, not save the right amount of teleport arrows, and you will fall. Chances are extremely high that you’ll miss all the narrow, hard to see platforms on the way down, and have to start from the bottom.
I did this three times.
That’s not the section that made me rage quit. Oh, I certainly gave the game a “f**k you game” moment or seven during those sections, but the King doesn’t take fall damage, the backgrounds were soft and pretty after several harsher areas, and I had sunk quite a bit of time into the game. Sure, there would be an area involving hidden and false passages that I would absolutely hate and would be enough for me to never play this game again on their own, but I didn’t know that at the time.
No, the space area is what made me rage quit.
At first, I loved this section. You have to ascend from several platforms at “the end of the world,” which look like a destroyed landscape, which makes sense given how much fighting this world is supposed to have. But after that, the King of Darkness is launched into space. There the platforming is twisted a bit. You have to walk around on planets, and the gravity of the planet becomes how you need to orient yourself. Down points toward the center of the planet, regardless if that’s directly down from your character or sideways. You then have to launch the King of Darkness through space, aiming for other gravity wells to get pulled into. It’s tricky, but it’s not navigate a 21 step jump puzzle in thin air tricky.
Then the planets start exploding. There’s a set time limit where you have to launch the King off a planet in just the right space in order to not only hit the nearest gravity well, but to avoid being burned by the explosive fire of the planet/star/meteor. Go too late and get burned. Aim wrong; get burned. Not quite input the button sequence right enough for the slightly off timing, get burned.
I managed to hurl myself through space, aiming for the primal source of fire (just roll with that). Then I got inside a planet where I found… more platforming where if I inputted a button wrong I’d get burned and sent back to a starting point.
I cannot emphasize enough how bad of a game design this is. In Hollow Knight, your reward after a tricky platforming section would not be another tricky platforming section. You’d have to explore an area in the dark or you’d have a mini boss area to explore that ends in a puzzle fight. In that aforementioned White Palace, there are breaks between sections where you can heal and adjust your loadout, and there were even small spats of enemies to fight.
Your reward for difficult platforming in Aeterna Noctis is more difficult platforming. On top of that, you’re doing this with nothing but stiff controls. That isn’t even getting into the fact that the healing afforded to you is scant (a frequent complaint but something I’m a bit used to), or that this game has decided to mimic so many metroidvanias and be a “soulslike,” which means that every time you die, you drop your experience where you died and have to go back and get it. (Oh, and it’s also extremely hard to gain levels after a while, and the rewards are things like “gain a 5% increase in your chance to critical hit!”).
When I first started Aeterna Noctics, I seriously thought it may replace Bloodstained as one of my personal favorite metroidvanias. It had a gripping story, fascinating world to explore, great graphics, and it initially felt like the game had been designed around how your character controlled. It had some difficulty, yes, but it wasn’t needlessly punishing. Checkpoints felt fair and I felt like I was steadily growing as I kept leveling up and finding new stuff.
Later into the game, I faced punishing platforming section after punishing platforming section with no respite in between. Rewards are incredibly scant, and sections that don’t involve precise jumping over instant death sections are few and far between. It shifted toward being a thoroughly enjoyable experience to something akin to torture. Something that made me go “this isn’t fun” and turn off the game to play something else.
I actually don’t believe games necessarily have to be fun if they’re saying something deep. I also think that challenging games are often highly engaging. There’s a reward in managing to beat a tough game or section. My favorite metroidvania is Hollow Knight, which is notoriously difficult. I played through almost all of Sekiro, a notorious soulslike game from the company that makes such games. To cleanse my palate from this game, I beat Death’s Gambit again, which also has soulslike mechanics and tricky bosses.
Challenge in games can push the player to master mechanics or dig deep within themselves. It pushes you to think creatively, and to dig down deep and work hard to accomplish something. Those are not only good skills to have for games, but arguably for life.
I also just like the feeling of beating something that took effort. I like to be pushed a little with games; I want to feel like I’ve actually beaten something and earned the victory. I’ve been known to increase the difficulty when playing games by myself or with friends because that’s how I enjoy the games. I only play Fire Emblem games on Hard mode, or sometimes even higher difficulties, because that’s how I enjoy the game.
But there has to be more to a game. The gameplay has to make you feel like you’re getting better as a player, like you’re just fighting the game, not the controls. Things have to be challenging, yes, but they have to be challenging in a way that feels surmountable and not needlessly punishing. A game that kills you for making the slightest wrong move and then sends you back several steps in a lengthy process isn’t one that’s taking the player in mind. Yes, some games operate like that, but they do so with tight controls. The game feels built around your character and how it controls.
In Aeterna Noctics and games like it, it feels like the game was made without a thought toward player interaction and how the character would move and control within the game world. It’s a representative of a sad pattern that’s showing up in a few games, but particularly the metroidvania genre. These are games that are hard just for the sake of being hard, which have taken soulslike mechanics and thrust them into the game. Yes, that can work, but your game still has to be thoughtful and built to accommodate the player.
Some of you who have played this game would mention that there are, in fact, difficulty settings. There’s an easier mode called Aeterna, and a harder mode called Noctics. So surely all I needed to do was play on easy mode.
I never left that mode.
Why would I? The game never got easy enough to warrant it, and I’m not going to fight both a difficult game and bad controls at the same time. I’m still not sure if I’m going to go back and beat this game or not.
4 an excellent story and stunning graphics mixed with great worldbuilding don’t do a lot of good when the controls are stiff and awkward and the game has needlessly difficult and punishing platforming sections that will kill even veterans of the genre